21 October, 2016

The Perennial 29th Birthday

Today, October 21st, is my birthday. Perhaps the most common question I am asked, especially when meeting someone new, is, "how old will you be?"

My typical response is, "I'll be celebrating my 29th birthday." And it's a factual statement. One can celebrate anything one chooses, and I happen to choose to celebrate my 29th birthday. But it's not for the reason most people would think.

Many may deem such a response to be a sign of vanity. There is, after all, an increasing amount of anxiety surrounding the entrance to one's fourth decade of life (or in layman's terms, turning 30).

There also is the common myth among many gay men—especially those young adults and 20-somethings—that crossing the boundary into one's thirties is the death knell of gay life. Worst of all, thirty becomes that age when one no longer can get laid and instantly transforms one into an old troll or, worse, a chicken hawk.

There's even a zeitgeist surrounding one's 30th birthday. In fact, there was a television show dedicated to life in one's thirties titled, imaginatively enough, thirtysomething. Unlike the hit 90s sitcom Friends of a group of 20-something New Yorkers, the 30-something gang of suburban Philadelphians failed to attract a mainstream audience, ending without much ado after only four seasons.

The thirties are when society expects one to have one's life together. Thirty-somethings are supposed to be set in their careers, starting families, and buying homes in the suburbs, not living in cramped studio apartments struggling to make ends meet eating ramen and taking the bus. They're supposed to have sizeable retirement accounts, family sedans, and take holidays in the Poconos, not South Beach. Perhaps this more mundane thirtysomething lifestyle is a reason the show failed to gain traction? But I digress...

Most people don't find life in their thirties to be terribly interesting. From the time one enters this "seriously senior" stage of desultory adulthood until one's retirement, life pretty much is the daily grind that is the butt of few, if any jokes. SSDD (and we're not talking the antiquated acronym we learned in the 1980s defining the storage capacity of certain removable, magnetic media here, folks) becomes the acronym de l'époque as untoward machinations comport the free spirits of hopeful twentysomethings.

The outlook is even worse if one is queer/LGBTQ, especially if one doesn't yet have a partner. There is little hope for the single gay to find that special someone as dating past one's twenties morphs into this unwieldy hot mess of nightmarish complications involving way too much time requiring Getting to Know You (getting to know all about your issues, too!). The thirtysomething gay must deal not only with their own issues but also those of their date and all of their date's friends' issues, in addition to their friends' and family's issues, as well. And there simply aren't enough drugs and alcohol on the planet to get us through that!

But for me, celebrating my 29th birthday isn't about any of that.
You see, the worst year of my life (which I've written about), when life put me through a meat grinder and spat me out into the maelstrom of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, was when I was 28. Most people who know me know it as the year of my automobile accident, the year of my grandmother's death, my mother's first bout with breast cancer, friend's suicide, father's remarriage, death of my last, true love, and a few other sordid events that turned my Shiny Happy People life into a scene from Dante's Inferno.

While I've written (briefly) about my hospitalization, I've usually left it that I spent most of that year in hospital. What I haven't stated (often) was that from January through May, I was in the physical hospital. Some time between May and June, without getting into the nitty gritty of it, I wound up in the behavioral health hospital, instead of being moved into inpatient rehab. I thus spent the physical rehab portion of my recovery locked up in an inpatient psychiatric unit.

Nurse Ratched
For the first time in my adult life, I was diagnosed with mental health issues—issues that predate my accident and I'd been living with but hadn't a clue about (knowledge is half the battle, yes?). According to the DSM-IV, I was diagnosed with dysthymia, general anxiety, social anxiety, performance anxiety, and chronic Major Depressive Disorder (I think the DSM-V would categorize all this simply as "depression" and "anxiety" but don't quote me on that; I haven't really studied up on the DSM-V).

My car accident was in January, and I was 28 years old at the time.

On my 29th birthday later that year on October 21st, I was still in the (mental health) hospital being treated for severe depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and anxiety, among other things (I was still receiving inpatient physical rehabilitation services, as well, thrice weekly). During my daily appointment with the treating psychiatrist, I broke down into uncontrolled fits of sobbing simply because he wished me a happy birthday.

I was so broken—not just physically but financially, mentally, spiritually and just about every other aspect—that I couldn't let anyone even say, "happy birthday" to me without turning into a blubbering mess. I quite literally could not celebrate my 29th birthday. My session began with my shrink giving me a birthday greeting and me spending the remainder of the session sobbing uncontrollably, unable to even explain why I sounded more like a banshee than a birthday celebrant.

For the next five years, I invariably spent my birthday locked up in an inpatient psychiatric unit of one mental health hospital or another, primarily to treat depression and suicidal ideation (or otherwise). I've never really been able to celebrate my birthday, at least in anything forming a semblance to what one normally would consider a celebration, birthday or otherwise.

I still can't explain why I broke down so badly in front of the first (or any) person to wish me a happy 29th birthday. But ever since then, I haven't been able to celebrate a birthday. I can celebrate life, and the fact that I'm alive, and a few other things, but not my birthday.

In fact, I am grateful that I'm alive, and I'm filled with gratitude for all of the wonderful, amazing, loving, and caring individuals who are a part of my life. I can do gratitude. Got that covered. But when it comes to celebrating, I can't...

Even to this day, my birthday still remains an elusive something I am unable to celebrate. I feel numb, empty, and devoid. There is nothing inside—no joy, no hope, not even sadness. I am a vacuum of emotion. While I can at least now go through the motions of celebrating, what I feel on the inside is anything but feeling. How can one feel celebratory when one simply can't feel?

I've previously written that I spent a good number of years existing in a "living coma" after my accident. This "half-vegetative state" existed until I returned to the scene in Montauk, NY a number of years later, where I spent a good deal of time taking in some of the ocean's healing energies.

The feeling—or lack thereof, more specifically—I have on my birthday is quite different from that, though. I spend the days, and sometimes weeks, leading up to my birthday gripped in the throes of paralyzing fear, anxious of ... I don't know what. It's similar to the anxiety I feel when I know I should do something but can't quite bring myself to do it.

So when people ask me my age, I tell them that I'll be celebrating my 29th birthday not because I'm vain or care how old I am but rather because I have not been able to celebrate my 29th (or any other) birthday to this very day. As such, I will continue to celebrate my 29th birthday until that changes and I'm actually able to celebrate my 29th birthday.

To me, it's not a matter of vanity, it's a matter of living life and continuing to grapple with the mental health issues of depression and anxiety I battle on a daily basis.

For the record, I'm at the age now where I can't quite remember how old I am, which also happens to be the age where one no longer can be arsed to do the math.


Or to put this in terms that millennials may better relate to:

Q: Why do you celebrate your 29th birthday when you're not 29?
A: Because, I can't even.